The “home-hotel” is a phrase Darren Rubenstein and architect Chris McCue use more than a few times as we stand on Domain Road outside United Places, a new designer hotel opposite Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens.
They’re talking about intimacy and comfort – the kind you get in your own home, where there’s no desk-side check-in and no crowds. The new three-storey hotel, owned by Rubenstein and designed by Carr Design Group – where McCue is director of architecture – has just 12 suites and is only four storeys high.
From the outside it’s a contemporary, modernist cube – an apt and thoughtfully considered neighbour to another gardens-facing local: an iconic, ’60s-era apartment block designed by Robin Boyd. Longevity and attention to detail – two qualities espoused by the acclaimed Australian architect – are Carr priorities, something that’s clear in United Places, even from the street.
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“The level of detail Boyd often explored, we also tried to explore in this project, in particular in the layering of the balustrade detail becoming so integral to the facade,” McCue says, pointing to a line of brass that acts as a sort-of grid on the exterior, and is also used throughout the hotel in the form of handrails and light fixtures. “Nothing’s there that doesn’t have a purpose.”
This is the first of Rubenstein’s United Places, a hotel group that’s all about “beautiful inner-city locations,” he says, dropping Bondi as potential location down the line.
In South Yarra, the hotel’s entrance corridor and lobby subtly play on the idea of the laneway – a ubiquitous Melbourne symbol – with a bluestone path that extends seamlessly from the actual footpath and board-formed concrete walls that resemble wood grain. You’re inside, but outside at the same time.
Take the lift upstairs and it’s a very different proposition: dark wood screens replace anodised metal, and timber floorboards and sisal runners replace stone pavers. It’s warm, cosy and moody.
“It’s a very hard, architectural-base building, but it’s layered with softness as you move into the suites so that they’re cocoon-like,” McCue explains.
And you’ll want to touch everything: the waxy concrete walls, the velvet curtains, soft meshes, handmade brass room numbers, lush fabrics, locally made ceramics.
“Materiality is where we’ve focused a lot of our attention – there’s no artwork,” Rubenstein says. “There were so many elements … that had to be striking and strong. But when you come in [to the suites] you’ve got this calmness and relaxation.”
United Places has nine minimalist one-bedroom suites and three two-bedroom suites, the latter featuring obsidian bathtubs with views of the city skyline. All 12 rooms have kitchens and recessed terraces and feature motorised velvet drapes (a cocoon-maker, enclosing the bedroom), handscraped oak floors, custom side tables made in nearby Richmond, and Grant Featherston armchairs. Pops of colour come in the form of inky-blue couches and pastel-coloured curtains, which are olive or pink depending on your room – there are greens and charcoals in the north-facing suites, referencing their Botanic Gardens vista; the quieter south-facing suites feature pink tones in the vein of Melbourne's buildings and rooftops, including an old redbrick warehouse behind the property.
Each room has its own set of custom ceramic crockery by Shari Lowndes, who used three local clays to create the collection. If you look closely you’ll see black specks – tiny pieces of ash from timber on an old farm Lowndes lived on – that correspond to black chips visible in sandblasted concrete on the facade. It’s an example of obsessive design detail that, after spending time with McCue and Rubenstein, feels about right.
The shower floors, for example, are made of a single porcelain tile, which required a level of precision so extreme during install that roughly 60 per cent of them broke during first attempts.
“The architecture and the interiors here are pretty unforgiving in their precision,” McCue says.
“But you feel that difference – you feel it on your feet,” Rubenstein adds. “One big porcelain tile [means] no grout lines. It means cleanliness, refinement, fewer junctions – less everything is better.
“They’re elements that you don’t notice … You don’t know why one space is better than the next [but] it’s because the lines are perfect.”
The centrepiece of each suite is a mirrored bathroom pod, which separates the bedroom and living spaces. This reflective capsule is one of many examples of the hotel’s minimalism made opulent, with flat, linear planes made of luxury materials. Inside the glass, the bathroom is modernist and glossy – aerodynamic in one way, but warm and comforting in another.
In the kitchen, the minibar is stocked with local products from Two Birds and Temple Brewing beers to Capi and Hepburn Springs water and Baker D’Chirico biscotti. The hotel has also partnered with Sullivans Cove Distillery – Australia’s most globally renowned whisky maker – to provide 200-millilitre bottles of its limited-release French Oak single malt in each room.
"We want United Places to offer guests the most elevated and memorable experience they have ever had," Marcus Pelham, the hotel's general manager told Broadsheet in March. "Everyone has the need to feel special and this is exactly how we make our guests feel, through attention to the finer detail and servicing guests’ every whim."
Breakfast is complimentary and comes courtesy of one of Australia’s top chefs; Scott Pickett’s new fire-focused restaurant, Matilda, occupies the ground floor of the property. He curates the breakfast offering, and guests of United Places get priority entry at the diner.
“The [travel] experiences I’ve loved is when you go and stay, say – in Croatia we stayed at someone’s house and there’s that really local feel. They put beautiful local olive oil on the table, for example. And everything’s intimate,” Rubenstein says. “That’s what I want for our hotel. I travelled with my wife for 12 months around Europe and our greatest experiences through Greece, through Croatia, through parts of Russia were those kinds …
“Those are the experiences you remember, and that’s what we want to achieve.”